Intersections in the Wild

If you want to understand transportation and its role in a city, and understand it deeply, the best way is to spend some time watching intersections.

To get the most out of it, you’ve really got to dig in and watch those intersections. You’ve got to go slow and be deliberate in your observations, so find yourself a comfortable place with a good vantage point to sit or stand. Start by looking at at the built environment around the intersection, noting land uses, densities, architectural elements, and the like. Move on to the physical infrastructure, and observe the curb lines, lane configurations, and traffic control. Note any signage, intersection-related or otherwise, as well as lighting, ambiance, and the overall sense of place. Are there any other functional or aesthetic objects, like hydrants, refuse bins, street trees, or planters? Note which travel modes utilize the intersection. How are various modes accommodated? Are there ramps and marked crosswalks for people walking and rolling, or some kind of protection for people cycling? If transit uses the intersection, is there a stop nearby or does it breeze on through?

When you’re satisfied with your diligence in observing physical aspects, move on to the real fun: Watching the intersection work. If there’s a traffic signal, start by watching that for a few cycles, noting how bandwidth is distributed, the length of yellow and all-red times, and how long it takes to cycle through the phases. Watching the car traffic, note volumes for each approach and each turning possibility. Observe the makes and models of cars, and the demographics of the occupants. How many people are driving alone and how many have company? Similarly, observe demographics and group dynamics of people walking, people riding bikes, people skateboarding and unicycling, or whatever. Look at desire lines, particularly for people walking or cycling, as they enter, traverse, and leave the intersection. Watch the modes interact. Look for safety issues, whether real or imagined by users. If possible, cross the intersection on foot yourself, or ride through it on a bike, or drive through it in a car. Since it’s The Future, look for Uber/Lyft tags on cars, and note the share of drivers who are distracted. And on and on. Then come back and do it all again on a different day, or at a different time of day, or at the same time in different weather.

Do this enough, of course, and you come to understand a lot more about an intersection than merely how the traffic moves through it. You also start to see it for its role in the neighborhood and the city in which it sits, and you understand the city itself better as a result. So the simple act of watching an intersection is one of the most fulfilling ways to satisfy your inner-urbanist, in all of its richness.

In this era of alternative facts, where narratives come first and reality is adjusted as needed to fit them, the art of shutting up and observing something seems to be fading. I’ve seen accordingly little writing on this sort of thing in the media or the wonkosphere, so it seems a ripe topic for expounding upon in the hopes that it can add to the broader transportation conversation. So you’ll be seeing a lot of posts exploring Intersections in the Wild (for lack of a catchier phrase or more obvious pun) on these pages moving forward, delving into the minutiae at varying depths. I do hope you’ll read along and join in when the spirit moves you. We shall start next week, with the first of many dispatches from the most interesting intersection in Portland…

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